Robert Hanssen was the head of the Soviet department in the FBI. And he was working for the enemy. Over a period of 22 years, he sold vital secrets to the Soviet and Russian governments for $1.5 million, resulting in what the FBI itself called “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history.” He was captured in the act of leaving information at a “dead drop” on February 18, 2001 and pled guilty later that year. He is currently serving a life sentence.
Director/screenwriter Billy Ray, who also wrote and directed Shattered Glass, about another Washington figure who was not what he appeared to be, has made a movie about Hanssen (Chris Cooper), and especially about his relationship to Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young FBI agent assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant as the investigators were closing in on him.
The movie was based in large part on the recollections of O’Neill, who was only recently given permission by the authorities to tell his story.
And that is both the strength and the weakness of the story. Hanssen is a character of mesmerizing contradictions, passionately patriotic at the same time he was providing information that led to the deaths of American agents and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to national security. He was a devoted member of Opus Dei, a strictly observant division of the Catholic Church that believes that all people should aspire to sainthood. And he was deeply involved with pornography. In the movie’s most powerful moment, just after he is captured, Hanssen has just one thing to say to the long-time colleague who is looking at him with mingled disbelief and contempt. He tells him that the tracking device they put into his car needs to be improved because it was interfering with the radio reception, and that might be a giveaway.
As he did in Shattered Glass, Ray ably keeps the tension taut, even though we know the end of the story. Cooper is superb, hard as granite, dense as an imploding black hole. He doesn’t make any effort to make Hanssen’s motives clear, but he clearly conveys the rigid compartmentalization that made it possible for him to encompass such stunning contradictions. It is not only national security and integrity that Cooper’s Hanssen is breaching; it is the most fundamental notion of individual identity.
Laura Linney, as Kate Burroughs, the woman supervising the investigation, conveys just the right combination of resolute control and laser-beam focus, and that indispensible combination for significant accomplishment — imperishable idealism in the abstract, no-surprises cynicism in the particular. The often-underestimated Phillippe is fine, but the story goes off-kilter when it spends too much time on his cleverness, his conflicts, and his relationship with his wife. What are we supposed to make of O’Neill’s contrast with Burroghs and Hanssen when it comes to having a life outside of work? Who, in the view of the movie, gets the happy ending? Who can we trust?
Ray is too wise to try to give us any kind of explanation for Hanssen’s betrayal. Instead, he gives us a gripping cat-and-mouse story, using the satisfying conclusion of his capture to make us feel safe enough to begin to explore the terrifying horror of the kind of person who is capable of violation and betrayal on the most fundamental level.
Parents should know that the film has some tense confrontations with characters in peril, including gunshots. Characters drink and use some strong language. There are sexual references, including pornography and “deviance.” The theme of the movie is betrayal and treason. Some audience members may be concerned by the portrayal of the characters’ real and assumed religious faith and practices.
Families who see this movie should talk about the compromises that people in these positions must take and what the government should do to prevent and respond to breaches such as these.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy one of the finest miniseries ever broadcast, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, inspired by the greatest breach in the history of the British equivalent of the CIA, involving Kim Philby, part of the famous “Cambridge spy ring” that included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt. Other real-life stories of double agents are portrayed in The Falcon and the Snowman and Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within. An unusual aspect of a double-agent’s story is explored in An Englishman Abroad, based on the experience of actress Coral Browne (who plays herself) when she met with Guy Burgess in Moscow, after he defected. Washington DC’s Spy Museum has an exhibit about Robert Hanssen and the people who caught him.